In times of chaos and crisis, there’s a wide variety of reactions. Anxiety, grief, fear, denial – these reactions are all normal, especially in abnormal circumstances. I want to discuss each of these reactions and how therapy can help you cope if this is where you find yourself, but I also want to discuss the most important reaction and motivator: hope. And how to get there.
Anxiety. I love working with anxious clients. There’s an energy that comes with anxiety, and it’s rewarding teaching clients how to harness that energy, utilize it, and make it productive. Channeling that anxious energy into positive outlets and learning the necessary distress tolerance and emotional regulation skills takes work, but it’s very possible with the right therapist!
Grief, on the other hand, is a different beast. Grief work is exhausting. There is unfortunately no quick fix for grief. It takes time. And can feel like a slow process. But it is rewarding sitting with someone in their despair and being there for them, completely. Most of the time the most appropriate therapeutic response is a moment of silence… the moment is incredibly heavy and drenched with emotion. But it’s our job, as therapists, to help alleviate the burden of grief. To help you carry it. To remind you that you aren’t alone.
Grief manifests differently outside of the office though. It takes so many different shapes and forms. It hides behind anger, fear, sarcasm, humor, and denial. The ways in which we watch our loved ones cope with grief can be unsettling; they start to make jokes and hide behind humor, keep busy, intellectualize, or emotionally breakdown and cease to function. These reactions can be confusing and disjointing, especially if our own grief manifests differently. This is common, but it often makes the grieving process more complex and confusing. It also usually leaves us feeling alone at times as we sit sobbing while we watch our husband (or brother, cousin, Uncle Steve, etc) across the room – now the life of the funeral – cracking jokes doing his own stand up routine. This disconnect with our loved ones is difficult, especially when we want and need support the most, and adds to the burden of grief, so having your therapist validate and normalize your experience can be incredibly reassuring.
Fear is one of life’s most powerful motivators, which is particularly concerning as fear often makes us act irrationally. Fear makes us stockpile two years worth of toilet paper and all of the cleaning supplies in a five mile radius (which essential businesses like your local mental health private practice desperately need to keep their staff & clients healthy). Fear makes us over react and panic. It makes us lash out and act impulsively. For all of these reasons, and many more, fear is not the driving force or motivator we want behind our decision making, especially in life-and-death decisions or during a crisis. Fortunately, you can combat these irrational thoughts with a good CBT (Cognitive Behavioral) therapist and eliminate your fear(s).
And last, but certainly not least, denial… as scary as it is to be operating from a place of fear, I’m more concerned about those in denial, who don’t seem to fully grasp the seriousness and longevity of what we’re facing. The family and friends who are in denial, who are not willing to accept the physical, economic, and mental health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, are dangerous. They will likely spread this disease if they aren’t strictly abiding by social distancing and quarantine protocols, which will result in unnecessary death and the delayed opening of businesses, which will continue to hurt our economy. The longer we have to be in isolation, and the longer our economy and small businesses suffer, the worse the mental health ramifications will be for everyone. We’ll see increased substance abuse, anxiety, depression, domestic violence, child abuse, overdoses, and suicides. This is a big pill to swallow. Which is why those struggling with this reality need therapeutic intervention and support the most. They need professional, compassionate help to face their fears, understand the impact of their actions on others, and ultimately come to a place of radical acceptance.
I keep calling this time period “Katrina 2.0” but this is worse than Katrina in so many ways. Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005. There was a date of impact. There was physical damage. You could see it. Lord – you could smell it. I’ll never forget that smell. I refuse to freeze meat to this day because of that smell. My point is, Katrina was tangible. COVID-19 hasn’t been tangible for many people… yet. Which makes it so much easier to live in denial, fear of the unknown, anxiety as we wait for an invisible enemy to attack, and/or mourning for the normalcy of our lives. Again, all of these reactions are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. I completely understand these reactions and responses. But without acceptance and understanding, there is a short-sightedness that is causing more harm than good. I hope and pray to God every day that I never see another Katrina X on my home. I am dreading the day we get to the point that the National Guard is doing welfare checks and putting a body count on everyone’s homes – not just from COVID, but from overdose, suicide, domestic violence spiraling out of control, etc. I’m hopeful it won’t get that bad, especially if we can all band together, follow the CDC guidelines, and take the proper precautions…
If anything is going to guide your decision making or be a motivator at this time – let it be hope. Hope requires acceptance first. You need to understand and accept the reality of the world we’re living in and hope that we’ll come out of this stronger as individuals and a community. I hope we can flatten the curve. I hope that my staff stays healthy, so we can continue serving our community. I hope all of our healthcare workers stay safe! This is a time to put our positive intentions into the world and take action to make those hopes a reality.
This is an opportunity for positive change! Even if the change is that you get to sleep more than you used to, wear your pajamas to work, or spend more time with your dog. I’ll call that a win. I know my dogs are certainly considering it a win!
I’m not saying you have to move mountains at this time. I get that depending on where you’re starting and what your mental and emotional state is, that’s not realistic. But this is an opportunity to focus on your self-care and wellbeing in a way that you might not have had before. We all seem to have an abundance of time on our hands.
But if you are in a place that you are safe, healthy, and mentally/emotionally able – there is plenty of opportunities for personal growth, community outreach, and change on systemic level. I would be happy to send a long list of healthcare and/or education initiatives if you’re struggling for ideas. Volunteering is a great way to channel energy into a productive and useful means of helping others that often feels meaningful and hopeful.
I hope that both individually and as communities we can find hope during this pandemic, particularly when it feels like our efforts are wasted – they’re not. I remember the sense of national pride after 9/11 – the unity. I hope we can find that same spirit of hope, unity, and support again. It worked for New Orleans after Katrina. I saw it work for Boston (#bostonstrong) after the marathon. It’s time that we show how resilient our people and communities can be – stronger together. Hope has the power to do this!